When he awoke on the morning of May 28, Mick Dunbar was not a happy man. Today was his birthday, his thirty-sixth
birthday, and he had to face the bitter fact that he wasn't so young anymore.
On this particular morning, he even felt old. His shoulder ached from that bullet wound ten years back, he seemed to have more gray in his dark hair than he'd had the night before, and shaving off his mustache didn't make him look any younger. Mick knew it was going to be a long day.
The moment he arrived at Scotland Yard, he saw that the birthday jokes had already begun. His office was empty. His desk, his chairs, his case files were gone. Even the commendations he'd received in his career were no longer hanging on the wall.
"Thacker!" he shouted, watching as his sergeant came running from the large room that served as the main office of the Criminal Investigation Department. "What happened here?"
The suspicious twitch of the sergeant's huge red mustache told Mick that Thacker was in on the joke. "Chief Inspector DeWitt decided today was the perfect day to repaint your office."
"I'll bet he did," Mick muttered. Even his own boss was not above a bit of chicanery. "So where'd he put me? The morgue?"
"No, sir. You're on the ground floor. I'll show you."
Mick followed his sergeant downstairs to the large main office of the constables. It was the worst place -- other than the morgue -- that the lads could have chosen. Anyone coming to report a crime was sent here first. It was noisy, crowded, and chaotic.
Thacker led him to the center of the room. Case files and reports were heaped on top of his desk and on the floor surrounding it. Mick, considered to be the most obsessively neat officer in the Metropolitan Police, looked at the mess and swore loud enough to be heard above the noise.
Laughter broke out all over the room, and he looked around to see the constables on duty grinning at him. But when he walked around the desk to sit down, he found the joke was not yet over. There was a cane hooked over the back of his chair.
Mick looked at the symbol of old age and scowled. Birthday pranks were common, and he was usually ready to laugh along with the others, even when he was the victim. Not this year.
He grabbed the cane from the back of his chair and handed it to Thacker. "Toss that in a dustbin."
"Happy birthday, sir." Thacker gave him a hearty slap on the back that sent a shot of pain through his aching shoulder. "You knew something like this would be on today."
"Aye, I knew."
"Cheer up, sir. I've had worse things done to me in Her Majesty's Navy." He grinned. "By the way, I could have told you it doesn't work."
"Shaving off your mustache." Undeterred by Mick's deepening scowl, he continued, "How does it feel to be an old man?"
"Thirty-six is not old." Mick sat down, staring at the mountains of paperwork that completely hid the top of his desk from view. "Any new cases in this mess?"
Thacker pulled a pair of files from beneath one of the stacks. "Two new ones for you today, sir."
Mick removed one pile of paperwork from his desk and set it on the floor, clearing himself some space to work, then he took the files from the sergeant.
"A drowned body, female, found yesterday on the bank of the Thames just beyond Tower Bridge," Thacker explained, "and a viscountess claims her emeralds have been stolen."
The body sounded more intriguing than jewels. Mick opened that file first and read through the report of the drowning.
"The divisional surgeon believes it's a suicide," Thacker went on, "but he said you'll have to wait for the autopsy this afternoon before he'll swear to it."
"Of course it's suicide," Mick answered and shut the file. "The report says three witnesses watched the woman jump. Why did the River Police give this to the Yard?"
"Richard Munro said to tell you happy birthday."
"What a thoughtful fellow. Telephone his office and tell him he'd better meet me at the morgue about half past three. Cal will have finished the autopsy by then. Tell Richard if he doesn't meet me there, I'll tell his wife where I took him the night before his wedding."
Thacker laughed, and Mick set the first file aside. He picked up the second one. Glancing through it, he shook his head. "Some pampered viscountess losing her emeralds? No, thank you."
"She had worn the necklace to a ball, and she's certain she put it in her jewel case when she came home. She claims someone must have taken it between the night before last and this morning. She suspects the maid. It's probably an easy case."
Mick was not tempted by that. "Give it to one of the junior detectives. They need the experience."
Thacker took the file. "I'll have it assigned to -- "
The sergeant was interrupted by a loud, indignant voice that boomed through the office of the constables like a powder blast. "I told you I want to see Inspector Michael Dunbar, young man, and he's not in his office. Where is he?"
Mick glanced up. When he saw the stout, red-faced woman standing by the front counter with a constable, he knew his day was headed straight down to hell.
It was Mrs. Tribble, his landlady, a woman with a raucous voice and an overbearing manner. When she glanced his way, Mick shielded his face from her view with the case file he was holding, but it didn't work.
Her boot heels thudded against the floorboards with her considerable weight as she marched toward his desk. "Mr. Dunbar, I have come to report a crime." She thumped his desk with her fist. "An infamous crime."
Mrs. Tribble was always coming to him with infamous crimes. A fortnight ago she'd misplaced a ring, insisting it had been stolen. The month before that, she'd claimed a man had made improper advances to her in the queue at the stop for the omnibus. Wishful thinking on her part, Mick suspected. "What is this crime?"
"My Nanki Poo has disappeared. He has been kidnaped."
Nanki Poo was a flat-faced, bad-tempered Pekingese. Some people thought Pekes were dogs, but it was Mick's opinion that as pets they left a lot to be desired and could be of far greater use to the world as dust mops. "When you receive the ransom note, bring it to me."
She stared at him. "That's all you're going to do?"
He heard Thacker smother a laugh, and he decided it was time to repay the sergeant for calling him an old man. "Not at all. Sergeant Thacker will begin the investigation." Mick stood up, smiling at the sergeant's look of dismay. "I have to be going, but you'll help Mrs. Tribble all you can, won't you, Thacker?"
Gesturing to the door with the hook of the cane in his hand, the sergeant said in a resigned voice, "Come this way, ma'am."
Mick left his landlady to Thacker and departed from the Yard, but he had barely stepped into Parliament Street when his day took another turn for the worse. He heard the sound of shattering glass, splintering timber, and frightened screams, and he glanced across the street to find that someone had driven a Benz motorcar up over the sidewalk and through the glass front doors of the Boar's Head Pub.
"Bloody hell." Mick made his way across the traffic of Parliament Street, hoping nobody was dead, because he'd end up being the one to visit the relatives and break the bad news. He hated that.
As it turned out, nobody was hurt by the incident except the driver of the Benz, who had a bleeding gash on his forehead and was too drunk to feel the pain. In his inebriated state, the idiot had decided it would be jolly good fun to smash in the front doors of the Boar's Head Pub.
Mick didn't agree. He arrested the fellow, not caring that he claimed to be Sir Roger Ellerton, and the son of an earl. Mick hauled Sir Roger into Cannon Row Police Station right beside the Yard, charging him with public drunkenness and property damage.
"You can't arresht me, you bashtard!" Sir Roger bellowed out a curse worthy of any longshoreman and slammed his fist into Mick's left cheek.
Mick was a big man, and though the impact of the other man's fist made him see stars for a second, it didn't knock him off his feet. He promptly returned the favor, and the dazed Sir Roger fell back into the arms of Anthony Frye, the day-watch sergeant. "Toss him in a cell," Mick ordered, "where he can sleep it off."
Anthony grinned at him over the top of Sir Roger's lolling head. "You're going to have a fine shiner there, old man."
"Thirty-six is not old," Mick said through clenched teeth.
His reply to that was an obscene gesture that only made Anthony laugh. Mick filled out a report on Sir Roger, adding the assault of a police officer to the charges, and left the station. He caught an omnibus for Piccadilly Circus and spent the next six hours investigating one of his open cases.
It was after three o'clock when he started back for Scotland Yard. He stopped at a costermonger's cart on Cannon Row for a Cornish pasty, but the only ones left were mutton. Mick hated mutton, hated it with a depth of feeling akin to his hatred of Manchester United and newspaper journalists. Anyone with sense knew that Celtic, not United, was the only football team worth a damn, and newspaper journalists were the bane of every policeman's existence. Mutton wasn't fit for dogs. He decided to wait for dinner.
Back at the Yard, Mick went straight to the morgue, intending to confirm the suicide of the woman who'd jumped off Tower Bridge and close that case.
As far as dead bodies went, drowning victims had to be among the ugliest, Mick decided, staring down at the bruised and bloated remains of one Jane Anne Clapham, which lay on a table in the morgue. Slime and mud had dried to greenish-brown patches on the woman's skin, and algae from the Thames still clung to her blue-tinged lips.
He glanced at the two other men who stood around the table, Richard Munro and Calvin Becker. Cal, the divisional surgeon, was happily munching on sausage rolls from a paper bag in his hand as he gave Mick his report.
"Death is by drowning." He held out the bag to Mick and went on, "As to the bruising, it's all postmortem, probably from the river currents banging the body about."
Mick pulled a sausage roll from the offered bag and popped it in his mouth, studying the dead woman as he ate. "Where did they find her?"
"Butler's Wharf. She floated down from Tower Bridge and got stuck under the pier. Couple of boys playing there found her."
"Suicide is clear, isn't it?" Richard asked. "Why climb up over the rail of Tower Bridge if you don't intend to jump?"
"When did she die?" Mick asked, looking at Cal.
"It's hard to say. A fortnight ago, at the very least."
It all seemed straightforward to Mick. "Anything else?"
"One odd thing," Richard said. "When we searched her flat in Bermondsey, we found a suicide note addressed to her son."
"What's odd about that?"
"Her son's been dead for fifteen years."
Mick wasn't intrigued enough by that to pursue it, and his caseload was heavy already. "She was an old woman, probably senile. Let's end this case, gentlemen."
Richard reached into his pocket and pulled out several folded sheets of paper. "In honor of your birthday, I thought you'd enjoy being the one to write the paperwork."
"Not a chance," Mick said, shaking his head. "The body was found in the Thames. You're the River Police. One of the advantages of my job is that I get to pick and choose my cases. You don't. This one's yours."
"Sure you don't want it? You know this woman."
Mick frowned, looking down again at the dead woman. "I do?"
"The Clapham case. We worked it together. We sent her husband, Henry Clapham, to Newgate. He died a few weeks later, killed by another prisoner. That was twelve years ago. We interviewed her, and she was at his trial when we testified."
Mick shook his head. "Lad, I've done so many cases, I'm lucky if I can remember the details of one I handled two years ago, much less twelve."
"Losing your memory? Getting old will do that to you."
Mick turned away. "I have real cases to work on. I'm going."
He left the morgue and returned to his temporary office. Back at his desk, he'd barely taken off his jacket before David Fletcher, one of the constables, was beside him.
"While you were out, you got a message from Bow Street Station," the young constable told him. "Billy Mackay telephoned to tell you it's the White Horse tonight, not the Boar's Head, to celebrate your birthday. And DeWitt wants to speak with you. He said he wanted you in his office the moment you returned."
Mick was pretty sure why his superintendent wanted to see him, and it wasn't about a birthday joke. Why did DeWitt have to get his knickers in a wad today of all days?
The first words out of the chief inspector's mouth confirmed Mick's guess. "Are you out of your mind?" he bellowed the moment Mick entered his office and shut the door behind him. "Do you know who Sir Roger Ellerton is?"
Mick shrugged. "He said he's the son of an earl."
"He's the son of the Earl of Chadwick!" DeWitt rubbed his hand across his nearly bald head, making the hairs he had left stand on end. His voice rose to a shout. "Chadwick is a cousin of the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary is the head of Scotland Yard, in case you've forgotten!"
Mick let out his breath in a slow sigh. His day was no longer headed to hell. It was already there.
DeWitt ordered that Sir Roger be released immediately, gave Mick a stern reprimand, and docked him a day's pay. He then reminded Mick that people like Sir Roger did not get arrested, and made it clear that if Mick did something like this again, he'd get a suspension. But as Mick was walking out the door, DeWitt spoke again, this time in a calmer tone of voice. "I have one more thing to say to you before you go."
Mick turned. "Sir?"
DeWitt grinned. "What do you think of your new office?"
"It's lovely," Mick answered with a grimace of a smile. "When can I go back to my old one?"
"In a few days. When the paint's dry."
Mick nodded, knowing full well his office hadn't needed any paint. "What color is it now -- purple?"
DeWitt shook his head. "No, chartreuse."
"My favorite." Mick knew his superintendent was joking about the paint but not about Sir Roger or the suspension. He returned to his desk downstairs and tried to be philosophical about his reprimand, but he couldn't help feeling a bit of frustration.
Unlike Sir Roger, Mick had no titled relations to get him out of trouble. In fact, Mick had no family at all. Every trouble he'd had in his life, he'd paid for. Every success he'd earned the hard way. He'd done so well during his career that last year DeWitt had promoted him to a roving commission, one of only six such positions at Scotland Yard. The job meant a substantial raise in pay and allowed him to pick from among the most intriguing cases that came to the Yard.
Mick sat back in his chair. It seemed only yesterday he'd been a fresh-faced newcomer to the force, a cocky kid who knew more about how to break the law than enforce it.
Now things were different. After seventeen years in the Metropolitan Police, seventeen years of hard work, saving every shilling he could and living in a one-room flat, Mick could afford to have the one thing that had eluded him all his life. A home of his own.
He could envision it -- something on a quiet street in a respectable neighborhood, with at least five bedrooms, indoor water closets, and a huge back garden shaded by ancient oak trees. It would be the perfect house for a man who had always dreamed of having a home and family.
But there was no point in purchasing such a house without a wife, and until he found the right woman and got married, he'd make do with a one-room flat, an obnoxious landlady, and a barking, ankle-biting dust mop.
Mick glanced at the clock on the wall. It was half past four, and he was supposed to meet Billy and Rob at the pub for his birthday in half an hour. He hadn't eaten all day, and his mouth watered at the thought of an underdone beefsteak, a plate of chips, and a pint of ale, but he couldn't tolerate the idea of leaving his desk in a mess. As he worked to put things back in order, a soft, West End, very feminine voice penetrated his consciousness.
"...and I really feel that it is my public duty to report this. Being detectives, you'll know better than I how to resolve this situation. I have no experience with this sort of thing myself. Murder, I mean."
Mick lifted his head at the mention of murder and saw a young woman seated in front of Fletcher's desk, a woman who seemed ludicrously out of place in the offices of Scotland Yard. He saw the profile of a slender figure in a froth of pale yellow silk. Dozens of tiny, dark green bows trimmed her dress, many of them untied. Long, untidy tendrils of chestnut brown hair had come loose from beneath the unfashionable, wide-brimmed straw hat she wore.
"After all," she said to Fletcher, "I saw the poor man lying there, bloody and dead as dead can be. I'm certain you'll be able to do something."
Mick raised an eyebrow. Quite a startling statement from a woman who looked as soft as whipped butter. This might be a case worth investigating.
As if sensing his scrutiny, she turned her head in his direction. When she caught sight of him, her dark eyes widened with what appeared to be complete astonishment. Fletcher began asking her the questions customary to any police report, and she answered them without taking her gaze from Mick's. "Haversham. Miss Sophie Haversham. 18 Mill Street, Mayfair."
Fletcher wrote down that information, then asked the very question that was going through Mick's mind. "Now, what would a young lady such as yourself know about a murder, Miss Haversham?"
She didn't answer. Instead, she stood up and circled Fletcher's desk, leaving the bemused constable staring after her, his question still hanging in the air. She came straight to Mick.
"I think perhaps it would be best if I spoke with you about this, Mr....umm -- " She broke off and glanced at the brass nameplate on his desk. " -- Inspector Dunbar," she amended. As she sat down, Mick caught the delicate fragrance of her perfume, something spicy and exotic, a scent he didn't recognize.
Though her clothes were expensive, her frayed cuffs told Mick the dress was not a new one. Genteel poverty, he guessed. There were dozens like her in the West End. She was nervous, twisting her gloved fingers together and apart as if gathering her courage. That was understandable if she'd found a dead body. Silent, she continued to stare at him with a sort of apprehensive fascination he couldn't fathom.
Mick was accustomed to the attentions of women. He was a big man, tall and dark, with blue eyes and a brawny body that many women found attractive. He didn't get too swell-headed over the attention, though, because most of the women he met were working-class girls who thought any unmarried man with straight teeth and a steady job was a good catch. But this woman wasn't that sort, and he found it odd that she was staring at him so intensely. It bordered on rudeness.
Not that he minded. He stared right back and enjoyed the view. She had thick-lashed brown eyes and the soft, pampered ivory skin typical of young ladies within her class. But when his gaze reached her mouth, Mick caught his breath. There was nothing ladylike about that mouth. It was a wide, generous cupid's bow with a plump, delicious bottom lip that would give any man, including Mick, lustful thoughts and wicked intentions. It took an effort for him to bring himself back to the business at hand.
He pushed aside a stack of files and reached for a pencil and notepaper. "You said you've come to report a murder?"
She continued to stare at him in silence for several seconds, then suddenly she shook her head as if coming out of a daze. "I'm sorry for staring, but I'm a bit rattled, you see," she said, her trembling voice validating the truth of her words. "Murder is rather disconcerting, isn't it?"
Without waiting for an answer, she rushed on, "Oh, I've dealt with a bit of crime here and there. Petty theft on the part of servants, and merchants who try to cheat you by putting too few herring in the barrel or shortweighting the flour, that sort of thing. And street urchins who look so innocent when they swarm around you and ask for money, then there you are without your reticule or a farthing in your pocket. But dealing with a murder, I'm afraid, is beyond my experience."
She paused for a quick breath of air, but not long enough for Mick to get a word in. "Of course, there was the time that Mrs. Archer hit Mr. Archer over the head with a frying pan. Cast iron. He died, but she never meant to kill
him, I daresay, just cosh him on the head, and that's not the same thing as murder at all, is it?"
Mick stared at her, a bit stunned by the rapid stream of words. His carnal imaginings about her lovely mouth were forgotten as she continued rambling on about Mr. and Mrs. Frying Pan, and he wondered if she ever intended to come to the point.
"I didn't ever dream such a thing would happen," she went on, "and even if I had, I'm not certain I would have done anything to prevent it. Archer was a cruel man indeed, and even though he was her husband, I still say she was defending herself." Miss Haversham's nose wrinkled with distaste. "He drank, and men who drink can be unpleasant, even violent." She gestured toward Mick's face. "But then, you already know that."
Mick sat up straighter in his chair and felt a tingle along the back of his neck. It was a sensation with which he was very familiar, a sensation he usually got just before entering an opium den in Limehouse or turning down a dark alley in Whitechapel after midnight. A sense that he'd better watch his step and pay attention. "What do you mean?"
"Well, didn't a drunken man hit you?" she asked. "I'm getting quite a strong impression that's how you received that black eye." Before Mick could ask what had prompted her to such an impression, she spoke again, a tiny frown drawing her brows together. "Of course, I could be wrong. So many possibilities swirling around, and it's difficult to sort it all out. I get muddled sometimes."
Mick was not surprised. If there was an actual crime somewhere in all this, he wanted the facts as quickly as possible. "Tell me about this murder you saw."
"Well, I didn't actually see it with my eyes, but the impressions are so clear that I might just as well have witnessed it."
Mick didn't have the slightest clue what she was talking about. "So you have seen a murder?"
She lifted her head, looking at him with those pretty, chocolate brown eyes. "Of course. Isn't that what I've been telling you?"
There was no answer to that question. He tried again. "Where did this murder occur?"
"I'm not exactly certain." She closed her eyes and tilted her head to one side, causing a broken ostrich feather on her hat to fall forward across her face. "I've been trying to figure it out. I could clearly see greenery -- trees, grass, and such. There was a border of rhododendrons and a bronze statue, though it had gone to verdigris, and those green statues are so hard to see amidst the shrubbery, aren't they?" She opened her eyes and pushed back the feather. "Of course! It was Robert Burns. So there you are."
Mick stared at her, feeling a bit dazed. He didn't know what Robert Burns had to do with anything, especially since the fellow had been dead for nearly a century. "I don't understand."
"The statue I saw was of Robert Burns. So the murder must be in the Victoria Embankment Gardens."
"Must be? Don't you know where you were when you saw this murder?"
"Of course I know where I
was," she answered. "I was in bed. I'm just not certain where the murder is, but now, because I remembered about Robert Burns, I am certain. Do you see?"
He didn't. How could she see a murder if she was in bed? His bewilderment must have shown in his face.
"It's difficult to explain," she said, "especially now that I've met you."
What did meeting him have to do with anything? A dull ache began between his eyebrows. He tried another question. "Did you see a body?"
"Oh, yes." She gave a shudder and recoiled slightly in her chair. "I'm so sorry to be the one to tell you about this."
Mick's patience was coming to an end. "Let me see if I understand you, miss," he said heavily. "You believe that a murder has been committed in Victoria Embankment Gardens, and you saw the body there, but you were in bed at the time?"
"Oh, no, no, you misunderstand me. The murder hasn't happened yet, thank God. If it had, you and I would not be having this conversation. You see -- "
"How could you possibly see a dead body from a murder that hasn't happened yet?"
She took a deep breath and met his gaze across the desk. "I saw it in my mind."
He didn't need this. He didn't need one of the loony ones today. He was tired, he was hungry, and he was getting a headache. Rubbing his forehead with the tips of his fingers, he thought with wistful longing of his steak and chips. "It's lack of food," he muttered to himself. "I should've eaten that pasty."
"But you hate mutton, don't you?"
"What?" Mick lifted his head and stared at her, feeling again that little tingle along the back of his neck. What on earth had made her ask that? How could she know he hated mutton?
An explanation came to him at once. Billy and Rob. It had to be. His two best friends were behind this. They had hired this girl to come to him to report some incredible, silly, made-up crime. Another birthday joke.
Well, she was a damned fine actress. They'd probably found her in some run-down theater off Drury Lane. Now that he understood what his friends had done, Mick's good humor began to return, especially when he began plotting how to get them back. He leaned back in his chair and grinned at her. "How much?"
She stared at him. "I beg your pardon?"
"How much did they pay you?" When she didn't answer, he went on, "I'll tell Billy and Rob that this time they got me good and proper." His smile widened. "But I will get my revenge."
"I'm sorry," she said, shaking her head in confusion. "I have no idea who Billy and Rob are. Whoever they may be, they haven't 'gotten you yet,' as you put it. That's still to come, unless we can prevent it. You see -- "
"Really?" he interrupted, laughing. "You mean there's more to their little joke?"
"Joke?" Her confused expression changed to one of consternation. "I should hope you don't find murder amusing. I don't, and I doubt you will either once I tell you about it."
"Right." Mick stood up. "I think I've heard enough already."
"No, wait." She rose as well, eyeing him in dismay. "I haven't finished."
"Don't worry. I'm seeing the lads in just a few minutes, and I'll be sure to tell them what a fine job you did." He pulled his jacket from the back of his chair. "Good-bye, Miss Haversham. If that's really your name."
He started for the door leading out to the courtyard, ignoring Fletcher's grin as he passed the constable's desk.
"Wait," the woman cried, jumping up to follow him. "Please, listen to me. I have to tell you the most important part." She caught up with him just before the door and grasped his sleeve, desperate to stop him. "I have to tell you who is going to die."
"Luv, I don't care if it's the prime minister." He shook off her restraining hand and walked across the huge foyer to the entrance doors of Scotland Yard.
The woman would not be deterred. She ran around in front of him and turned around, blocking his path out the door. "You will
care, believe me."
She sounded so desperate that Mick gave in. Maybe she had to tell him the whole story or she wouldn't get paid. "All right, then," he said, laughing. "Who is going to be the victim of this murder in your mind that hasn't happened yet?"
She put a hand on his arm and stared at him with what seemed to be compassion. "You are."
Copyright © 2002 by Laura Lee Guhrke
--This text refers to the